On a Saturday night at Mary’z Lebanese Cuisine, the sizable front patio fills up with adults of all ages. Some are sipping on cocktails. Others are sharing bottles of wine. They’re also sharing hookahs loaded with shisha, a type of tobacco flavored with sugars or molasses that comes in fruity flavors like peach, lemon, blueberry and strawberry. To someone heading for the enclosed dining room, all those wafting scents combine into a melange of smoky fruit punch.
Inside, the modest dining room smells nothing like hookah smoke and more like the pita dough browning in the fiery brick oven and expanding into puffy rounds as it bakes. Fresh, homemade Lebanese food is a point of pride of owners Samir and Mary Fakhoury, who, according to a 2006 article by the Houston Chronicle, emigrated to the United States in 2000. Shortly thereafter, they got to work on filling a void — a lack of Lebanese food in Houston. Their first Mary’z Lebanese Cuisine, on Richmond Avenue, has served customers for more than a decade. They opened their second restaurant, on Washington Avenue, in 2015.
Make no mistake; this sedate cafe is part of the culinary revival on Washington Avenue, not the fading party scene that caused drivers to avoid the area every Friday and Saturday night. While Mary’z sports a full bar, the beverage list is an antiquated afterthought that offers drinks fresh from the 1980s, like Green Apple Martinis, Chocolate Martinis, Fuzzy Navels and Cosmopolitans. Don’t come here to drink. Come here to eat.
Usually, that’s a great reward unto itself, but we wouldn’t have known that from the initial visit. The servers are pleasant, but the overall operation seems consistently slow and occasionally disorganized. There was some confusion about who was taking care of our table, and we waited for about 15 minutes to place a drink order after being seated. The pacing of when food comes out of the kitchen is a little odd as well. Several dishes tend to hit the table all at once, and it’s like playing a game of Tetris to make room for them all.
What was a near deal-blower, though, was the food quality on a busy Saturday night. The beef and chicken shawarma were dry, as if the big cones of meat had made a few too many rotations in front of the heating element. A side of green beans, with a dose of tomatoes, were devoid of texture and ranked just one step above those from a cafeteria steam table. Halloumi cheese wasn’t “grilled”; it was burned, with a solid coat of bitter, black char marring the underside. Golden brown cauliflower had potential but utterly lacked salt, and wasn’t helped at all by the weak accompanying tahini sauce.
It was the maqanik (also spelled “maka-nek”) sausages, though, that hinted at the great food Mary’z really is capable of producing. These beef links are infused with a spice blend redolent of coriander, cumin and nutmeg, adorned with diced red and green bell pepper, and served in a zingy butter and lemon sauce. The sauce brightens the meat and would bring anyone’s slumbering taste buds to life. The hummus, served with the pillows of hot pita bread straight from the brick oven, was also among the best we’d had. The smooth but not over-blended consistency and an ample dose of nutty tahini (sesame paste) were among its outstanding qualities.
Those were the accurate portents, and the following visit was a great success. The pacing of dishes was still a problem, but there are worse things than having a table loaded down with a showcase of Lebanese cuisine.
The Mary’z Sampler platter is great for two or three people to share, but it would also make a terrific meal for one. It includes four rolls of stuffed, pickled grape leaves, or dolma, in both meatless and beefy varieties. The vegetarian ones, stuffed with rice, parsley, chopped onion and tomatoes, are served cold and are slightly more tangy and perky than the meaty kind, which are served warm. There are also three savory fried pies, each stuffed with a different filling. One showcased lush tomatoes in balsamic with feta, another spiced beef, and the third spinach. But wait, there’s more! Specifically, there’s also kibbi, or fried, breaded cylinders of more spiced ground beef mixed with pine nuts, as well as three neat rounds of falafel. Of everything on the platter, only the falafel disappointed, with a dull texture that seemed due to an overprocessed batch of chickpeas, but even that could be forgiven after a dip in the on-point tahini sauce. All that cost $11.95 and seemed like a bargain.
The mixed grill platter was far superior to the dry shawarma platter from the previous visit. Lean cubes of beef tenderloin kebab took on just the right char and smokiness from the grill. Here, the marinated chicken, a dish called shish tawook, was moist. Most delightful of all was the kafta kebab. The grilled ground beef, laced with parsley, chopped onion and spices, has the kind of lingering flavors meat-lovers crave.
As mentioned earlier, the 1980s cocktail list could stand some updates, but adventurous drinkers might be intrigued by the Lebanese wine selection if they’re not obsessed with ratings systems. Lebanese wines don’t tend to rank highly, but that doesn’t mean these are not interesting and fun to try. Be forewarned: Reds are not chilled, and on warm Houston nights, it would be a very good idea to get a bottle instead of a glass and ask for a quick chill. When it’s served at the right temperature, the intricacies of a thin but intriguing Le Prieuré Chateau Ksara could keep someone entertained for a long time. A blend of Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, this earthy wine full of black plum notes is more than a little reminiscent of a lighter Rhône blend. A bottle is $26, and while that’s about a times-two markup over retail, it’s pretty cheap entertainment at a restaurant.
For something non-alcoholic, the hot tea at Mary’z is very fine — a perfectly brewed, imported brand from London served in glass cups. A big pot is $6.95 and will carry two people for the duration of the meal.
Be warned that even though Mary’z doesn’t close until midnight on most days and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, a phone call revealed that the kitchen always closes at 10 p.m. So don’t head over expecting late-night grub.
When the kitchen at Mary’z Lebanese Grill on Washington is running smoothly, it’s really something to see and as economical as it is worthwhile. Hopefully, our disappointing first visit was a fluke — a rare off night — and our better experiences were more like what’s normal. If so, we can envision many an afternoon or evening lingering over warm pita puffs, exemplary dishes of hummus, hearty grilled meats and even a glass or two of that Prieure wine. Hookahs optional.
Mary’z Lebanese Cuisine
4500 Washington #200, 832-786-5555. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Grilled halloumi $9.95
Maqanik sausages $8.95
Mary’z sampler $11.95
Shawarma platter $15.95
Mixed grill platter $24.95
Almaza Lebanese beer $4.50
Pot of hot tea $6.95
Ksara Prieuré (glass) $7